magazines: Let's Hear It for the Boys

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A new magazine tries to attract hard-to-reach males.

A decade ago, when conventional wisdom dictated that guys would run screaming from a lifestyle service magazine created just for them, Rodale Inc. proved the masses wrong. Way wrong. The publishing company's launch of Men's Health not only showed that guys are interested in more than just sports, music, and gadgets, it helped bust open an entirely new market of adult male readers. Today, Men's Health is a category leader that boasts a circulation of 1.6 million readers.

Now, Rodale is girding for Round Two.

This time, the Emmaus, Pennsylvania-based company has its sights set on an even more elusive audience: male teens. This month, Rodale introduces MH-18, a Men's Health service-oriented spin-off, to attract the hard-to-reach adolescent male. It's a challenging feat considering the idea for a boys' lifestyle magazine has failed at least once before, and that today's newsstand is already woefully cluttered. In 1999 alone, nearly 900 new titles vied for the attention of readers. But Rodale executives are undaunted, convinced they have the right recipe to reach this fickle demographic. Says Jeff Csatari, editor of MH-18, "It's a gamble because nobody's done it right before. But I think now is the time."

He just may be right. In recent years, the teen market's explosion, in terms of size and spending power, has certainly captured marketers' attention. The sheer number of teens - those aged 12 to 19 - has risen 15.5 percent since 1990, to 32 million. By the end of the decade, the teen population is projected to swell to 34 million. The burst has forced businesses to rethink the adolescent market. How could they not? The average 13- to 17-year-old today has 51 percent more pocket money than a comparable youth in 1995, according to the 1999 Roper Youth Report.

In particular, tech-savvy teen males, who earn and spend more than their female counterparts, (and comprise 51 percent of the total U.S. teen population), are fast becoming an attractive market all of their own. On average, teen boys earn approximately $88 per week compared with the $75 teen girls make, according to Teenage Research Unlimited (TRU). And 69.9 percent of teen males have a savings or checking account, while 16.2 percent own a credit card or have access to one in a parent's name.

"It's a hugely untapped market, especially in print," says Jeanne Whalen, vice president of marketing of netgen, which has created the new netgenCard, a money card for teens to use for online shopping. Adds Marisa Thalberg, vice president of global advertising at Unilever Cosmetics International/Calvin Klein Cosmetics, "People are establishing their brand loyalties as young as 10 or 12, so you're kind of missing the boat if you aren't starting a little younger these days." (Unilever is an advertiser in Men's Health and is eyeing MH-18 as well.)

Rodale's new entry, aimed at the nation's 12.1 million boys aged 13 to 17, debuts in late August with a guaranteed circulation of 125,000, and a 350,000 newsstand distribution. The company will publish two issues this year and plans six more in 2001. Using the tone of a knowledgeable older brother, MH-18 will offer insight and guidance on the hazardous high school years. The magazine aims to help young men "get strong, be smart, look good, have fun." Adds advertising director Steve Bruman: "And get the girl."

First, though, Rodale has to help teen boys "get" the lifestyle magazine concept. Advising male teens on exfoliating, accessorizing, and pimple-proofing their skin is hardly an easy task. Certainly, today's teen is more brand and fashion-conscious than his predecessor, but even so, some observers aren't convinced the idea will sell. "I don't think teen boys want to be told what to do, how to act, or how to dress," says J. Eric Bethel, senior vice president, associate director of Optimedia U.S. (formerly DeWitt Media).

Indeed, when the concept was tried before, it didn't exactly fly. In the early 1990s, the publishers of Sassy, a controversial magazine for teen girls, attempted to give teen boys the latest in music, sports, and gadgets as well as teach them how to dress, and get a date, all in one magazine. Dirt, which launched as a quarterly, folded after only a handful of issues. "Dirt had the best execution imaginable, but it didn't have a point of reference," says Fran Richards, editorial director of Times Mirror magazine's new TransWorld Stance, a sports-lifestyle hybrid magazine aimed at 16- to 21-year-old guys interested in skateboarding, snowboarding, and surfing, and the culture surrounding these sports. "No one had a reason why they had to buy it every month. The traditional female model of service-only magazines won't work for boys. I don't think the boys want that." (Richards calls TransWorld Stance - which has its fair share of both edit and ad pages devoted to clothes, music, entertainment, gadgets, and gear - a "broader interest niche magazine.")

In fact, teen males have long been regarded as specialist readers with very specific interests - particularly music, sports, and video gaming. To target them through print, marketers have often had to rely on adult-focused magazines that have high teen readership, such as ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Spin, and Vibe - potentially expensive buys when trying to target a much more narrow audience.

"Boys are still reading very vertically. They're not reading multiple topics in the same place," says Roberta Garfinkle, senior vice president, director of print media of Universal McCann. Adds Peter Gardiner, media director of Bozell New York: "Girls and boys have very different interests at that age. There's a reason why the books that succeed are about video games, extreme sports, and wrestling, and the girls' books are about beauty, people, and cosmetics - that's what they're into."

For MH-18 to attract enough readers to sustain it long-term, Gardiner says there will have to be "a dramatic change" in what teenage boys care about. "It's just not what they're about - not enough of them anyway."

That's frustrating for marketers who have limited options for reaching teen males through print. That's also the reason some marketers are willing to give MH-18 a try. Polo Jeans Co., John Paul Mitchell Systems, and Gillette, makers of Rite Guard Xtreme have all committed ad pages, Bruman says. The title has also secured Philips' Rush MP3 player as well as the U.S. Marine Corps, which plans to distribute 8,500 promotional copies of MH-18 to high schools through its recruitment programs. At presstime, Bruman was in talks with Norelco about a new razor targeting teen guys, and Whalen of netgen says her company is also considering advertising in the book. "It has the potential to open up a whole new category of publications," Whalen says. "It could be that category breaker that really shows other more traditional magazine companies that there is this interest out there."

Rodale's research suggests teen males may be interested enough to give the magazine a try. Focus groups of high school juniors indicated a desire to learn more about the opposite sex. "They were telling us, `I wish I was a fly on the wall of the school cafeteria so I could hear girls talking about boys,'" says Bruman.

Revealing secret thoughts of girls may be enough of a selling point - at least initially. "Where can you, without being embarrassed, ask how to be a good kisser," asks Julie Halpin, founder and CEO of The Geppetto Group, an advertising agency specializing in marketing to teens and children. "As difficult as that is for the girls, it's even more difficult for boys. A magazine that makes it safe to find out some of this stuff without having to show the world you don't know it, will be very successful."

Of course, the Internet is also a big part of many teen males' lives. And MH-18's companionWeb site, www.MH-18.com, which debuts this month, could help distinguish the magazine from others that have tried to conquer this space before. Teen boys who go online are much more likely than female Internet users to be interested in anything related to technology, notes Ekaterina Walsh, an analyst at Forrester Research. Male teens are more likely to buy a computer - and more likely to pay more for one - than females. And teen boys are more likely to buy online than teen girls are. According to one recent Forrester report, 40 percent of 16- to 19-year-old boys who browse online have purchased a product or service over the Net within the last three months, compared with 33 percent of girls.

And they're not just buying CDs in cyberspace. Today's fashion-conscious teen males take personal care very seriously. According to Teen People publisher Anne Zehren, among the magazine's 9,000 teen "Trendspotters" - teenage consultants stationed across the country - 78 percent of the males purchase their own clothes, 71 percent their own shoes, and 60 percent their own personal care items. Also, 58 percent of them shop in department stores at least once a month, 60 percent in specialty stores, and 56 percent in drug stores.

"Even in the two and half years since we launched, I've seen much more interest among boys in stories about hair and hair products," says Teen People editor Christine Ferarri, noting the 1.5 million circulation magazine has a 20 percent male readership.

To acknowledge the emerging male grooming market, the Time Inc. title makes a point of targeting boys and girls equally in its fashion and beauty coverage. A skin care piece that ran its first year, for example, gave an equal amount of advice for both. "We assumed that [boys] were just as interested as the girls were, and in fact they were," says Ferarri. In the past, she notes, not enough marketers were creating fashion and grooming products for teen boys to sustain a title like MH-18. "Now fashion and beauty companies are into it. We've shown that boys are interested in hair care and fashion, and the advertisers are responding."

In addition to advertisers' support, MH-18's success may ultimately hinge upon how well it markets to its own audience. Many say it will take a great deal of creativity to strike the right balance between being authoritative, friendly, and, well, cool. One thing's for sure: If successful, MH-18 could find itself in a rare and cushy spot, basically owning this untapped market. "There's a way to address these issues and make this appealing and comfortable for boys, but it is a very tricky thing to do," says Halpin. "It's not a lay-up, but it can be done."

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